In previous posts I have tried to chronicle the emergence of Women’s Liberation groups, mainly in London, in the course of 1969 who were organised into a network: the Women’s Liberation Workshop. To exchange news and foster debate they began circulating their own newsletter Shrew, each issue being edited by a different local Women’s Liberation group in turn. (You can read more about Shrew here.)
Following her article “Women: the struggle for freedom” which was published in Black Dwarf in January 1969, Sheila Rowbotham further developed her ideas in response to the new movement and this was published by the May Day Manifesto group under the title: Women’s Liberation and the New Politics. She says
…the innovative aspect was my attempt to trace how silence is broken by a new consciousness and how women’s grievances had historically taken differing forms. I had no idea, of course, that I was to pursue these two for the rest of my life!….through a mix of subjectivity, history and theory I was trying to probe beyond what was taken for granted.
Going up to Sheffield in May 1969 for a conference of the Institute of Workers’ Control Sheila spoke at women’s meeting and met trade unionist Audrey Wise and also Gertie Roche, a trade unionist in the Leeds clothing industry who was to lead a huge strike amongst women working in the industry in 1970. Gertie asked Sheila “And you, are you emancipated in your own life?”
The first collective protest by the WLW took place on 27th November 1969 when they decided to picket the Miss World contest which that year was taking place at the Albert Hall for the first time.
The contest had been founded by Eric Morley, a director of Mecca which had popularised bingo in the 1950s. The first contest was held in 1951 to coincide with the Festival of Britain. It was first televised live in 1959 and was watched by millions. (My family used to watch it for starters). It was accepted almsot without question as wholesome family entertainment.
The protest began at 6pm when three women arrived outside the Albert Hall in a taxi piled high with placards, sashes and leaflets. Over the next half hour more women trickled up from groups in London, Coventry and Essex, some of whom had already leafleted tube stations. Together they started leafletting the main entrance, forming two lines with about 50 women present.
The placards carried slogans such as:
Mis-fortune demands equal pay for women
Mis-conception demands free abortion for all women
Mis-pleased demands a place outside the home
There were large number of police outside the Hall, both men and women. To the women’s surprise the press and television turned up in numbers, taking photographs and asking questions and some women found themslves giving interviews. A number of the women sang American women’s liberation songs to the tunes of “Ain’t She Sweet” and “We Shall Overcome.”
Shrew reported :
We had all been speculating on what kind of people were going to fork out 3 or 4 guineas to actually see the Miss World show. The women were disguised in a general uniform of satin dress, fur stole, and 2ft hair-do, as they trailed along behind their penguin dinner-jacketed escorts. There was also a busload of sailors. Girls who were leafleting had some difficulty in avoiding the outstreched hands of the male patrons and in effectively thrusting the leaflet at their women who usually had their hands clutching fur stole and a handbag without a handle.
The picket marched doggedly but cheerfully round and about, and when the show started at 7.30pm we all reassembled , had a quick meeting, and went home cold and tired…to watch it on telly?
The contest was won by Miss Austria, Eva Rueber-Staier, a model and actress. (You can watch a Pathe news clip about the “50 stunning beauties” here.)
Several members of the group appeared on the David Frost programme the following day, while Eric Morley personanlly wrote them a letter which he addressed to “Ladies”.
With respect, you really must study your facts a little more carefully before you use quotations from newspapers. You say “why does Mecca spend thousands of pounds arranging the Miss World contest?” and then go on to refer to a statement I made regarding the Miss World trademark. Just for information Miss World started in 1951, and for nearly twenty years Mecca has spent in excess of one million pounds on its promotion. During that period of time the only people who have benefitted from it have been:
a) The children’s charities, for it is held in aid of handicapped children
- b) The contestants themselves who share several thousand pounds in prize money. The so-called exploitation of the winner is for her own good and not for the benefit of Mecca, for unlike other international beauty competitions, all the money which is received for the appearance of “Miss World” is paid direct to the winner, less the usual management fees, which incidentally do not cover the cost of looking after her during her year of office.
You also say “Outside the home we are given second rate jobs at third rate pay”. Miss World during her year of office earns over £30,000 which is more than I earn. If you consider this third rate pay, than you had better ask the hundreds of men in this country, earning £20 to £30, what they think about it. So that is the price of Miss World contest, about which you say “is the price of the economic, social and psychological devaluation of women financed by Mecca but paid for by all women”.
Could you please tell me what women pay for, for in this particular instance it is only they who benefit, for I can assure you that in the majority of cases, these girls will earn, at the very least, £2000 during the coming year.
It was this contest which enabled Miss Reita Faria to finish her studies and qualify as a doctor in one of the finest teaching hospitals in the world. As a result of her world travels she is in contact with people from all over the world, has gained money and independence, and a very worthy profession. Quite frankly, I think it was she who has exploited Mecca and not the other way round.
The successes and failures of the protest were picked over in the next issue of Shrew (November/December 1969).
The Miss World demonstration has again raised the problem of what the WLW is supposed to be doing. Though we can’t lay down any conclusive statements here, we can pose some questions on the general value of public demonstrations to WLW, and aspects of the Miss World contest in particular .
First of all – why did we do it? We feel that as a publicity catching issue it served to announce our collective existence as a group of women stating in one form that we are no longer prepared to accept the passive role imposed on us. Hopefully, we have begun to reach some of these women discontented with their traditional role and who now know that they are not the isolated neurotics society makes them out to be.
Before the demonstration took place many of us were worried that WLW would not be able to get large enough turn out, even for an effective picket. Contrary to expectations fifty women arrived, including contingents from outside London. This was reassuring. Now we know that we as women have enough tenacity to confront the male power structure in the future. For some of us, this was the first time ever on a public ‘demo’, for others it was at least the first time we had “gone it alone’ without any men to step between us and the authorities. Perhaps Sally sums up this feeling best – ‘we did it” – I have proved to myself that it wasn’t so frightening and it won’t be so bad next time.’
Why did we choose to demonstrate against the Miss World contest rather than, for example, the nudies at the Motor Show? The Misss world contest was not so much as issue in itself, but an illustration of the wider exploitation if women on an economic and pyschological level. Miss World, we are reliably, informed, earns over £30,000 during her year of office: in contrast, the average weekly wage for women in Britain is £10. The values embodied in the Miss World contest form part of a vicious circle of consumption. A commercial standard of beauty has been set up, creating anxieties in women, which compel us to accept and aspire to this standard by buying beauty products. By selecting competitors on the basis of this artifical measure, the Miss world contest reinforces the absolute nature of this norm of beauty. Miss world is then used as a trade mark to sell us mor e junk and so the whole process starts again.
The response to our picket quickly showed us how naive we had been in our understanding of organisation and the way decisions were taken in relation to the demonstration . The delegated working party didn;t function properly and communications broke down., resultng in individuals being faceds with last minute unilateral decisions., both on the picket line and later the following day. No-one expected so much interest by the TV and press, and the major problems of ‘WLW and the media’ didn’t even begin to be discussed until after the event. Ther emust be more communication between groups and w esuggest that ‘Shrew’ might be one vehicle for this.
We feel that as a group there is now a need to discipline our individual experiences of oppression and use them for serious collective analysis. we must learn to use this pool of experience, this knowledge of oppression we all share, to reach in the future a new vigorous of thought and action.
In the same issue Sally Reynolds contributed a piece “Thoughts about the Miss World Action” in which she was very critical, both of the protest and the decision-making process that had led to it.
Mass action? Do we mean everyone within Women’s Liberation at the moment or dreams of arousing the masses of women as yet unknown to Women’s Liberation? If we mean the latter how come we can’t get every London member of the Workshop to an early, short and not to cold picket line on the 27th November? We can’t even attempt a mass action until we get ourselves straight on this one issue. Also were there any others like myself who only came at the last moment out of solidarity to the movement and without a gut feeling to this particular issue.
Right at the beginning, the objections to the action that were raised at the first joint group meeting were not listened to, written down or really discussed, and a deep group participating analysis did therefore not develop. The few who wanted to go ahead did so and the silence from other groups was taken as consent. The objections and individual analyses having resulted, they must be formulated now or Women’s Liberation will nevrer become a unified force…
To me the most importnat conclusion is that we have a whole lot of talking to do. No more action yet. Everyone must dare to speak out in meetings or they’ll never do so in public. We must have a group analysis and a very strong sisterly solidarity before we attempt anything else of this sort, even if it takes another twelve months. We will be co-opted and split into a thousand factions if not; ‘united we stand , divided we fall.’
As for why we did it? The only reason I could gather was for publicity. this wa snot good right from the beginning. The press is the voice box of th esystem, and if we are a growing revolutionary movement, how can we expect it to show us in a favourable light? At this early stage of development it can only do more harm than good.
A second protest by WLW at Miss World took place a year later in November 1970 but on this occasion they adopted a very different style of protest. I hope to write about this in the near future.